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Spinning Trends in College Pricing

The College Board announced today that the price of higher education increased significantly in 2009, rising faster than inflation and family income. In other news, the sun rose in the east, teenagers were sullen and uncommunicative, too much alcohol gave people false courage, and politicians told people what they wanted to hear.

Following past practice, the College Board presented the findings in a light most favorable to its members, the colleges and universities that increased prices. Comparing this year’s announcement with last year shows this pretty clearly.

In 2008, the average tuition and fees at public four-year universities increased by 6.4 percent. Inflation in 2008 was unusually high, 5.6 percent, due in large part to spikes in energy prices. So when the College Board released Trends in College Pricing 2008, it issued a press release titled “College Prices Increase in Step With Inflation.” The first sentence was: “The College Board announced today that college prices in 2008-09 rose just slightly faster than the Consumer Price Index.”

A few sentences later, the release noted that “after adjusting for the 5.6-percent increase in the Consumer Price Index, average published tuition and fees declined this year by 0.8 percent at public two-year colleges and increased by just 0.7 percent for in-state students at public four-year institutions and by 0.3 percent at private four-year colleges and universities.”

The message: Tuition increased substantially but so did inflation so it’s not our fault.

Then the global economy almost collapsed and oil prices plummeted. For the first time in memory, prices dropped and inflation went negative. Meanwhile, in 2009, the average tuition and fees and public four-year universities increased by 6.5 percent, virtually the same as in 2008.

So when the College Board released Trends in College Pricing 2009, it issued a press release, which you can read here, titled “Economic Challenges Lead to Lower Non-Tuition Revenues and Higher Prices at Colleges and Universities.” The first sentence of the release was: “The College Board announced today that college prices for the 2009-10 academic year continue to rise as state funding and endowment values decline.”

The message: Tuition increased substantially but there was an economic crisis so it’s not our fault.

Whereas in 2008 the College Board made sure to note that the inflation-adjusted annual increase in tuition was “just 0.7 percent,” in 2009 it didn’t put the number in the press release at all, simply noting that it was “higher.” The summary data table in the 2008 press release included a line for “One-Year Percentage Increase After Inflation.” The 2009 summary data table omits this line. Why? Because the numbers are alarming: 8.8 percent for public four-year institutions. Elsewhere, in smaller print, the College Board cautions that “While necessary to make meaningful comparisons of values over long periods of time, comparisons of one-year changes in constant dollars may be confusing. Large fluctuations in energy prices have led to an unusually volatile CPI recently.” Yet it had no compunction about using this confusing measure a year ago.

Trends in College Pricing is, along with the accompanying Trends in Student Aid, an invaluable, up-to-date compendium of vital information about how much college costs and how much students pay for it. It is the principal source of the data that informs the public dialogue about college price and affordability. Which is exactly why the College Board shouldn’t use its position as the holder of this data to annually spin the results to the advantage of its members.

To its credit, the College Board calls for institutional pricing restraint and commitment to need-based financial aid. The reports themselves are for the most part sober and even-handed. But the top-line framing of the issue matters a great deal. The long-term trend of relentless tuition hikes is the single biggest driver of growing unaffordability in higher education. As the report notes, this phenomenon is both persistent and accelerating. In the 1980s, the average annual increase in tuition above inflation at four-year publics was 3.0 percent. In the 1990s, it was 4.0 percent. In the 2000s it was 4.9 percent. Spinning and massaging the extent of the problem isn’t going to help.

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